A Call to Action for Human Service Advocates: If You Want a Different Result, Tell a Different Story

Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Lee Sherman and Bridget Gavaghan

Our nation’s immediate and long-term prosperity hinges on ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential and make meaningful civic, social, cultural, and economic contributions. As a membership organization for some of the largest, most innovative human service organizations in the country, the National Human Services Assembly has had a front row seat to the sector’s role in fulfilling this shared societal ideal. From scouting programs that support children in their social and emotional development, mentoring programs that build the leadership skills of young people, education and training programs that prepare adults for careers in growing industries, to in-home supports that keep older adults healthy and engaged in their communities, human services are there to build and maintain well-being at every stage of life. 

Despite the sector’s essential work, we have struggled to engage the public and policymakers as meaningful supporters and partners. Human service leaders frequently find themselves opposing cuts to public funding, at the federal, state, and local levels. Meanwhile, private sources of funding, from foundations to individual donors, are sensitive to external conditions, like economic downturns or changes in tax policy.

Funding is not the only concern for human services. Despite our expertise, we are too often sidelined in important debates about how public policies should be crafted. You can look to recent proposals to consolidate federal human service programs and add unnecessary work requirements to a range of public benefits to see how the marginalization of our sector can actually undermine health and well-being in our communities.

In 2012, the National Assembly commissioned the FrameWorks Institute, an interdisciplinary team of social scientists and communications practitioners renowned for their evidence-based approach to communications, to conduct extensive research on public views of human services. What they uncovered were alarming, yet commonly held, misconceptions about human services that limit the public’s understanding of and enthusiasm for our work. To elevate human services as a national priority, our sector needs to adopt a dramatically different approach to communications. But not just any story will do. Through a rigorous testing process, FrameWorks identified a new narrative that is demonstrated to elicit deeper engagement from the public.

In the two and one half years since FrameWorks’ released their final recommendations, the Building Well-Being Narrative, the National Assembly’s Reframing Initiative has led efforts to accelerate the sector’s implementation of the frame by disseminating findings, identifying and sharing effective reframing strategies, and building a network dedicated to reframing. We have experienced wide-spread, demonstrated interest in this initiative. FrameWorks’ free online toolkit has been downloaded over 7,500 times. Over 9,000 leaders across the country have attended one of our presentations or workshops, and 2,000 individuals have joined our Reframing Network newsletter to receive ongoing reframing support.

We also have developed deeper, ongoing engagements with individual partners at the national and local levels to help them adopt reframing more thoroughly. Organizations and coalitions like the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities, One Voice Central Texas, Illinois Partners for Human Service, and New York City’s Human Service Council are embedding reframing into all of their communications, from their websites and program descriptions to their policy platforms and advocacy talking points. And while we are still early in the process, partners are reporting to us that they are starting to see real changes in how civic and community leaders are responding to them.

Alongside the successes of our initial mobilization phase, we have learned some important lessons that are shaping how we are advancing the National Reframing Initiative going forward that we think will help other organizations seeking to shift the narratives for their priorities. Changing entrenched habits of communication and thinking requires ongoing, intentional focus and dedication. While integrating the Building Well-Being Narrative into key organizational communications is an important start, true reframing must be woven into the fabric of the organization. We have found that most organizations benefit from an established commitment, intensive trainings, and ongoing technical assistance to build capacity for using the frame consistently and across communications platforms.

We also know that human service organizations are not solely responsible for changing the narrative. Policy think tanks, advocacy organizations, policymakers, foundations, and the media who cover our stories hold a tremendous amount of influence in shaping public understanding of our sector. Yet all too often, even our well-intentioned allies can reinforce the very misconceptions that limit public support. It is clear that increased and enhanced engagements both within and beyond the human service sector are required to produce the large-scale change in public thinking and political will that the National Assembly envisions.

Research tells us that if we want to improve the policy and funding landscape, we have to improve the public’s understanding of what human services are, why people need to access services, and how society benefits from our sector’s vital work. The National Assembly is leading the National Reframing Initiative to broaden public understanding of the sector, thus encouraging the necessary civic support for the critical local, state, and national human services that build the strong communities from which we all benefit. We call on our human service peers and allies to join this effort.


Lee Sherman is the President and CEO of the National Human Services Assembly, a membership association of some of the largest human service organizations in the United States. In his role, he leads the strategic direction of the organization, with a significant focus on building and maintaining key relationships with funders, members, and partners in the sector.

Bridget Gavaghan is the Director of the National Reframing Initiative at the National Human Services Assembly. Bridget helps communities across the country tell the public a new story about human services, one that cultivates a deeper commitment to the programs, policies, and services that are essential to creating a healthy, vibrant society now and for future generations.

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